Carolina Eyck is not one to be easily fazed. At an age when many children were hearing their first notes on the violin or piano, she began to learn the theremin: an extremely difficult electronic instrument, known for its non-contact playing technique and its strange groaning timbre. Then she mastered it to the point where now, at 34, she can play works of breathtaking virtuosity. YouTube video shows her effortlessly performing a Rimsky-Korsakov performance flight of the bumblebee – a piece so fast and frenetic that many might assume it’s unplayable on the theremin.
“With technology,” the German-Sorbian musician coldly tells me, “you can overcome speed limits.”
It is therefore striking that even she admits to being intimidated by the work she brings to the BBC Proms in August. This is the theremin concerto by Kalevi Aho, written in 2011, which takes the listener on a sound journey through the eight seasons of the Sami people of Lapland: spring, summer, autumn and winter, and the intervening half-seasons.
“It was the hardest piece I’ve ever had to learn,” says Eyck, speaking to me from his Berlin studio via Zoom. “That first rehearsal, I thought I was drowning. There are improvisation parts. There are also parts where I sing and play at the same time. I don’t know why I told Kalevi that I could do that. But, she says, the effort was worth it. “I like the variety that Aho brings to this concerto. It starts in the low register and ends with great bird sounds. treble, and has everything [you can imagine] Between.”
Anything that showcases the theremin’s potential gets Eyck’s vote. Over the years, she’s collaborated with singer-songwriters, worked with virtual reality technology, and even discussed the possibility of training a robot to learn theremin (“though I can’t reveal more details about it now”, she tells me mysteriously). Few, if any, of his predecessors have done so much to glorify his instrument. But then, as Eyck points out, there weren’t many.
The theremin, after all, is only a little over 100 years old. Invented in 1919 by Russian scientist and cellist Lev Sergeyevich Termen (anglicized as Leon Theremin), it is probably the only instrument that can be played without being touched. It consists of a housing and two metallic antennae — one controlling volume, the other pitch — which create an electromagnetic field. The player interrupts this with their hands, producing a sound that has been variously compared to the human voice, a pantomime ghost, and a descending alien spacecraft. Artists from composer Dmitri Shostakovich to the Rolling Stones have been captivated by this sound, harnessing its celestial qualities in their music. However, the theremin remains a marginal instrument.
How, then, did seven-year-old Eyck land on it? The answer is that she had a good start. In 1980s Berlin, his father played in a synth band and his mother provided the lighting for their concerts. “So I was very early in the world of electronic music,” explains Eyck. “One day, the group discovered the theremin. I remember he was sitting in our living room. I tried to play something; it sounded very wrong. But my dad was kind of a visionary. With her help, Eyck found a teacher: Russian player Lydia Kavina, who had himself studied with Termen.
Slowly, she moved from piano and violin, which she had already been studying for some time, to theremin and, despite the immense difficulty of the instrument, she felt liberated from it. “Since the instrument was so new, there was no established playing technique, there was no established genre you could fit it into, and there was no school of established music that you could go to and take lessons. So I could be creative in many directions.
She then devised a brand new theremin technique using specific hand gestures to achieve unprecedented precision. Then, at 18, she published a book about it: The art of playing the theremin. Becoming an ambassador for the instrument, she says, gave her a confidence that had previously eluded her.
“Every time I went on stage with my violin, I was shaking with nervousness,” she says. “But now I felt free because I knew no one in the audience knew what I was doing. I could play as out of tune as I wanted and instead they always said “that’s a cool instrument”.
Inevitably, however, she ran into preconceptions of the theremin as the instrument of choice for a supernatural encounter. “I think the stereotype evolved because the theremin was used a lot in old movies, and at the time it was the fashion to play with a lot of vibrato.”
It’s a cliché that continues to annoy him. “Just listen to Kalevi Aho’s concerto and you will hear the . . . musicality of what we can express. The Theremin sound is very pure and because it is so sensitive you can shape it exactly the way you want with your bare hands.
She even argues that the expressive potential of the theremin can, in some ways, transcend that of the human voice. “If you master [the required technical skills], you can extract emotions that are only possible on the theremin. Sometimes with the voice there is an automatic vibrato. On the theremin, you can use the movement of the arm to guide the vibrato more precisely.
But can an electronic device really outperform a human? “The theremin is the only machine that doesn’t look like a machine,” says Eyck. “One part is a machine and the other part is human. . . It is true that the sound is more synthetic on some models of theremin than on others. But in the end, it is the human who creates the sound.
For all the courage of his convictions, however, Eyck lacks the stridency of the hard-line evangelist. Calm and measured, with a tendency to fall into a thoughtful silence, she seems rather introverted to me. Performing, she tells me, and the perfectionism it engenders, hasn’t always been good for her mental health (“There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d ever get back on stage.”) Now She is increasingly making time for meditation, gardening and other non-musical pursuits.
“I used to think my goal was to educate everyone [about the merits of the theremin],” she says. “I’m not on that mission anymore.” So what’s her current focus? “I just play music and if I can touch somebody, that’s great,” she concludes. no matter what instrument you play, it’s ultimately just a tool you choose to express yourself with, and for me, that just happens to be the theremin.
Carolina Eyck performs “Eight Seasons”, the concerto for theremin and chamber orchestra by Kalevi Aho, on August 4. bbc.co.uk/proms